Before he became prime minister, Narendra Modi assured Muslims to promote their economic development and preserve their culture, stating: “I want to see you, laptop in one hand, Quran in the other.” Typically, Muslims too look up to the government to fix their life. Every other day, newspapers carry stories in which Muslim leaders and well-intentioned Hindu politicians accuse the government of failing to address Muslim backwardness. For all problems confronting Muslims, the government alone is blamed.
However, a community’s development is a function of voluntary initiatives by its members. In societies throughout history, governments have never given jobs to all their citizens; people have largely depended on personal initiatives like cultivating farms, launching a business or starting a school for their development; even today most Indians do not earn their living from the government. But even in government-assisted situations in which Muslims can address their educational backwardness effectively, they are proactively engaged in reproducing mass ignorance for their next generations.
Let’s take the example of nearly 1,400 madrassas managed by the Bihar State Madrasa Education Board (BSMEB), which is about to add over 2,400 madrassas on the state government’s payroll. Under the Nitish Kumar government, teachers at madrassas began receiving salaries on par with their counterparts in government-run schools. Degrees obtained from madrassas are recognised for government jobs and admissions to colleges. However, instead of ensuring educational progress, Bihar’s madrassas are producing a dark future for Muslims.
Maulana Amiruddin, who has taught at a madrassa in West Champaran for three decades and now teaches at a school near Patna, narrates a sad picture of educational rot at madrassas: only 15 per cent students who appear for Fauqania (matriculation) are genuine, the rest being students who haven’t attended classes at madrassas where they are enrolled; 50-60 per cent of all students who appear at Wastania (8th grade) board are enrolled retrospectively for the entire academic session just before the examination. The statistics, even if estimates, reveal wide-scale trends. Some teachers were sacked for possessing fake degrees obtained simultaneously from schools and madrassas in a single year.
Nowadays, Muslim families send their children to madrassas not to gain knowledge, but just the degrees. Maulana Amiruddin estimates that only about 20-25 per cent of degrees awarded by the BSMEB were on merit, which means over 75 per cent of those who pass with excellent marks haven’t attended classes. Their success results from mass-scale cheating at examinations, where examinees are told to write the question and corresponding answer number, and leave answer sheets blank; the assessors routinely give good marks without reading.
As Muslim boys armed with technical degrees from private institutes get jobs in the Middle East, their families sense emerging opportunities for government jobs for their daughters, says Patna-based journalist Irshadul Haq. Even when a girl hasn’t attended a madrassa, she appears at the annual exam, gets a degree and becomes eligible for government jobs. Young men and women, totally incapable of teaching, are hired as teachers, thereby reproducing a cycle of educational backwardness for Muslims for the next 30 years of their career; effectively, it produces a cycle of Muslim decadence for a century.
Maulana Amiruddin says: “In many cases, a person is appointed to teach Urdu but cannot teach the language, and ends up teaching Hindi (which is easier).” He notes that principals of madrassas are unable to stop the enrollment of absentee students because they are opposed by the madrassa management committees controlled by local zamindars or feudal lords. An official of the BSMEB, who declined to be identified, sounded more pessimistic: “The Muslim community’s future is dark. The next generation of Muslims will be worth nothing, perhaps not even capable of leading a funeral prayer.”
Writing in a different context of global capitalism, celebrated economist Andre Gunder Frank gave the concept of “the development of underdevelopment”, a process by which rich nations promoted underdevelopment in poor countries through exploitation of resources. In the case of Muslims, it cannot even be called the development of “underdevelopment” because it is essentially a voluntary mass reproduction of ignorance for several generations, even in situations like Bihar where the government is sincerely assisting them. Madrassas, controlled by Islamic clerics, will also need drastic rewriting of their syllabi: teaching English and computers from first grade, for example.
Outside the government framework, Muslims fail to take voluntary initiatives for their betterment—unlike minorities such as Sikhs, Parsis and Christians. Muslims, India’s second majority community, habitually look up to the government. All good schools and colleges are run by Christians; and all Muslim-managed educational institutions, including those of repute like the Aligarh Muslim University, are caught in mediocrity. The case of Bihar madrassas reveals two fundamental reasons for Muslim backwardness: feudalism and ulema (Islamic clerics who are the most organised section among Muslims); these are also the causes of Muslim backwardness in many parts of the world.
Muslims do take some initiatives: Islamic clerics swiftly collect lakhs of rupees to organise jalsas (religious gatherings); new mosques with tall minarets come up frequently in towns and villages, more so with money flowing from expatriate workers in the Middle East. For Islam’s public symbolism, they are proactive, but regarding their own socio-economic development, voluntary initiatives are missing; and the existing initiatives fall prey to feudal lords and clerics. Some writers argue that change among Muslims must come from within.
However, throughout history change has come from external sources—through mixing with foreign ideas, globalisation, wars and technologies. The reality: Muslims are incapable of handling their own affairs. Since the madrassas are on the Bihar government’s payroll, it is time the state handed over their management to non-Muslim officers from civil services; currently the state appoints Muslims only to run madrassas. But first begin by de-recognising the madrassa degrees for this simple reason: this country and Muslims deserve better.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org